Northern Ireland return to action on Thursday in the first of what is bound to be an energy-sapping triple header. First up is a trip to Parma where we’re up against Roberto Mancini’s Italy side who are currently ranked 10th in the FIFA World Ranking. This will be the first meeting between the two sides since 2011 when Italy were victorious in Pescara – the Portavogie of the Adriatic.

Italy will be looking to make a bright start to the campaign having missed out on the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 1958 (we may have had something to do with that one). Mancini will also be looking at the start of this qualifying campaign as a healthy challenge ahead of Euro 2020 where they have been grouped with Turkey, Switzerland and Wales.

Italy away line-ups
Last time away to Italy in 2011

In the team news as we approach the opening game, Baraclough has announced that Liam Boyce will miss the trip to Italy as he stays in Scotland to be with his wife who has just given birth. Nathan Gartside, the uncapped Derry City goalkeeper, will also miss the trip due to a medical reason. Jamal Lewis is doubtful due to a groin injury.

The Italians have also struggled with injuries with Chelsea’s Jorginho missing due to a knee injury. Covid-19 has impacted the squad with their Inter Milan contingent affected by a recent outbreak, but Mancini was hopeful that they would be able to feature in the game.

One Maik Taylor
One Maik Taylor’s last cap

Steven Davis looks set to make his 125th international cap and in doing so will equal Peter Shilton’s record to become the joint top British international cap holder. Davis will be looking to continue his impressive club form which has recently earned him a one year contract extension at Ibrox.

Baraclough is likely to opt for five at the back to make the most of his experienced defending options, whilst there are various in-form striking options available to him, including the uncapped Dion Charles who has scored 17 goals for Accrington Stanley this season.

Northern Ireland will be looking to make a positive start to the campaign which they can take on to the slightly less intimidating opponents of the USA, in a friendly on Sunday, before facing Bulgaria next Wednesday in another World Cup Qualifier. Both games are at a behind-closed-doors Windsor Park.

Nolers James Richardson Italy away
Not James Richardson

LAST TIME AROUND

Italy 3 (Cassano 21, 53; McAuley (OG) 75)
Northern Ireland 0
11th October 2011, World Cup Qualifier

HEAD TO HEAD

NI wins: 1
Draws: 2
Italy wins: 6

PREDICTED NORTHERN IRELAND LINE-UP

Peacock-Farrell: Dallas, J.Evans, Ballard, Cathcart, Lewis; Davis, Saville, McNair, C.Evans; Magennis

SCORE PREDICTION

Italy 2 Northern Ireland 1